Every day in our prayers, we recite a teaching in the name of Rabbi Yishmael (Ishmael). Now, why would he be named after Ishmael, who was expelled by Sarah and Abraham, with G‑d’s approval, due to his sinful behavior? Don't we have a custom not to name a child after a wicked person?


Indeed, there have been a number of righteous people named Yishmael, including the rabbi you mentioned, who was a leading sage in the times of the Mishnah and a colleague of Rabbi Akiva. And there was also the famously righteous High Priest during the Second Temple era, who was one of the 10 Martyrs killed by the Romans.

How is this OK?

We read in Proverbs, “The name of the wicked should rot [and not be remembered].”1 The Talmud interprets this to mean that one should not give a child the same name as a rasha, a wicked person.2 Additionally, the rabbis explain that bearing the same name as a wicked person can adversely affect the child’s character.3

Based on this, we don’t give our children names like Esau, Haman, etc.

So why is Yishmael different?

The Power of Repentance

Some explain that we only don’t name after a sinner who died without repenting. According to some opinions, although Ishmael had his ups and downs, ultimately, he repented and was considered righteous.4 Thus, the injunction against naming after the wicked would not apply to him.5 (For more on Ishmael’s fascinating life, see Ishmael: Abraham's Other Son.)

However, not all sources agree that Ishmael repented before he died.6 According to them, why are there righteous Jews in our history who bore his name?

A Divine Name

Ishmael has the rare distinction of having a name that was chosen by G‑d Himself. Indeed, we read, “The angel of the L‑rd said to [Hagar, concubine of Abraham], ‘Behold, you will conceive and bear a son, and you shall name him Ishmael, for the L‑rd has heard your affliction.’ ”7

The commentaries explain that since the name was chosen by G‑d Himself, the injunction against naming after the wicked does not apply.8 After all, the name yishma-el means “G‑d [should] hear,” which has a most beautiful and spiritual connotation. So Ishmael was not wicked because of his name, but in spite of it. As such, Jewish parents wishing to name their child Yishmael are free to do so.

For more on Jewish baby naming, see The Hebrew Name - All About Jewish Names.